Reader's Encyclopedia

Plato (c427 - c348 bc)

A Greek philosopher and prose writer. Born at Athens of a noble family, Plato aspired to political activity. Dismayed at the inequities of the Athenian tyranny, and later at the execution of his teacher Socrates under the democracy, he turned toward philosophy in search of an alternative to the unstable and unjust public life of the time. He also sought unity behind the changing impressions of the visible universe.

After Socrates ' death, Plato went to Megara and possibly visited Egypt and Cyrene. During this decade the dialogues that emphasize the personality of Socrates are supposed to have been written. At the age of forty, Plato visited Sicily and Italy, and twice returned there later in life, hoping vainly to influence Dionysius II, tyrant of Syracuse, to establish a Platonic government. On his return to Athens, Plato founded the Academy, at which discussion and research were stimulated in mathematical and astronomical fields, in practical legislation, in the art of definition, and in natural history.

All Plato's writing, except for the Apology and the Letters, is in the dialogue form. Of the thirty - five dialogues, twenty - nine are considered genuine. In the earliest dialogues, Socrates is the principal figure. This group includes the Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, and Lysis. The Apology records Socrates ' defense at his trial. These dialogues are philosophically inconclusive, but are considered best to represent the historical Socrates. In a second group, Socrates is the spokesman for Plato's views or Plato'sinterpretation of Socrates. These include Alcibiades, Cratylus, Ethydemus, Gorgias, Menexenus, Meno, Parmenides, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Protagoras, Republic, Symposium, and Theaetetus. A third group of dialogues, written in Plato ' s later years, includes Critias, Philebus, Politicus, Sophist, Timaeus, and Laws. The last was unpublished at Plato's death.

The dialogue, as Plato used it, is a literary form, not merely a vehicle for the expression of a philosophical system. Plato ' s philosophy emerges not in a systematic or didactic way, but through the use of dramatic setting and myth. Therefore, summary or paraphrase easily distorts Plato's thinking.

The core of his philosophy is the doctrine of ideas. Form and idea are used interchangeably to designate that which remains the same through all the manifestations of a material thing or a virtue. An idea for Plato, contrary to its common English usage, is something outside the mind. He posited a realm of truth or being in which the ideas reside, as distinct from the world of opinion, or Doxa. Through the soul, the mediator between the ideas and appearances, we may obtain knowledge.

Tradition has it that Plato was originally named Aristocles, and only later called Plato ("broad") because of his wide forehead, his robust physique, the quality of his writing, or a variety of other explanations.